It’s time to escape the Covid prison
In the film The Shawshank Redemption, the elderly character Brooks gets released after 50 years in prison. Instead of celebrating, however, he is tentative — and shortly after experiencing the freedom of the outside world, he hangs himself.
“These walls are funny,” Morgan Freeman’s character Red explains to his fellow prisoners as they process the news. “First you hate them, then you get used to them. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. That’s ‘institutionalized.’”
As vaccines have brought the promise of liberation from a year of masks, lockdowns, canceled travel plans, and forgone family visits, there is a contingent of Americans who are simply not prepared to move on. They have somehow gotten used to the restrictions and are wary of returning to their pre-COVID-19 lives. In short, they’ve become “institutionalized.”
In a recent letter to the New York Times advice column Tripped Up, a woman sought guidance on when she could travel again in good conscience:
My husband and I are both fully vaccinated, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that we’re good to travel — with some modifications, of course.
But I am faced with a dilemma. Alaska, where we live, has been on the forefront of vaccinations. But until everyone we might encounter on a trip has been vaccinated, I am struggling with the idea of getting on a plane unless it’s absolutely necessary.
The writer goes on to ask whether she should travel if “there’s some chance, however small, that it could endanger others.”
In reality, a growing body of evidence suggests that vaccines are highly effective at preventing transmission, meaning that it is unlikely that a vaccinated traveler is going to pass on COVID-19 to somebody else — and the most vulnerable Americans have had the opportunity to get vaccinated for months. About eight in ten U.S. COVID-19 deaths have occurred among those 65 and older (my cmnt: and nearly all of those had two or more co-morbidities), and 70 percent of that population is now fully vaccinated, with 83 percent having received at least one dose. Furthermore, given the large percentage of vaccine-hesitant Americans, deferring plans until everybody one might encounter on a trip is fully vaccinated would effectively mean never traveling again.
In another story, the Wall Street Journal quoted a woman from the Washington, D.C., suburbs who was concerned about letting her vaccinated parents make an overdue visit to see their grandchildren, because she worried that her children (aged six and three) might get infected. After considering various measures, such as testing and quarantine, eventually the grandmother said she’d likely wait until the children were fully vaccinated.
Again, the likelihood of somebody who is vaccinated transmitting COVID-19 is low. But on top of that, children who get the virus are at extremely low risk of developing severe symptoms. Because a vaccine is not yet authorized for children under twelve, waiting until children are fully vaccinated would mean delaying any sort of visit until at least this fall, and potentially until 2022.
It would be one thing if these attitudes were confined to a few random risk-averse people. But instead they reflect the message being sent to the general population by leaders and public-health officials. The vaccinated President Biden is often seen wearing a mask outside, and he said recently that it was a “patriotic responsibility” for Americans to wear masks indefinitely, regardless of their vaccination status. In every interview with Anthony Fauci, reporters press him on when Americans will be able to resume certain activities, the assumption being that he is going to give them some sort of green light to return to their everyday lives.
The ubiquitous doctor, who has been fully vaccinated for months, has said he won’t go to restaurants or movie theaters. “I don’t think I would — even if I’m vaccinated — go into an indoor, crowded place where people are not wearing masks,” he said. He also said, “I don’t really see myself going on any fun trips for a while.” A point man for the original “15 Days to Slow the Spread” guidance in March 2020, Fauci has found a way to move the goalposts at every stage of the pandemic. Most recently, he said, “I hope that next Mother’s Day [as in May 2022], we’re going to see a dramatic difference than what we’re seeing right now. I believe that we will be about as close to back to normal as we can.” Yet the broad vaccination that he stipulated this would require, originally defined as around 60 percent of the population, has now migrated closer to 90 percent. Ironically, statements by Fauci and other leaders conveying that being fully vaccinated now does not make much of a difference in terms of what activities are safe reduces the incentive for people to get vaccinated and makes any sort of herd immunity a more elusive goal.
There are those who may argue that if some people are being extra cautious or government officials are making nonbinding statements, it doesn’t directly affect those who want to ease up on the precautions. But the problem is that we are in the midst of a destructive feedback loop. Leaders overstate the current risk of COVID-19, which ends up guiding the decisions of local officials, and also makes people more nervous about returning to normal. The people who are nervous then become less likely to pressure local officials to change irrational policies.
Despite a mountain of studies and real-world experience showing that children are at low risk of getting severe COVID and that schools are not a major source of spread, millions of children have not seen the inside of a classroom in over a year. The problem is more severe in blue states, where Democratic politicians and the public are more beholden to the most draconian COVID-19 advice. In California, according to an analysis by EdSource, 55 percent of public-school students were in distance learning as of April 30.
In states that have ditched outdoor-mask guidance, local officials in more-Democratic areas — such as Brookline in Massachusetts and Montgomery County in Maryland — decided to maintain outdoor-mask requirements regardless.
The CDC, despite revising mask guidance, has maintained recommendations that children’s summer camps require everybody to wear masks outside unless eating, drinking, or swimming. This even though outdoor transmission is rare at best and, again, children are at incredibly low risk. Particularly in areas where it can get brutally hot and humid during the summer, forcing children to wear masks all day is simply inhumane. This particular recommendation is so absurd that Fauci himself couldn’t maintain a straight face when asked to defend it in a television interview.
There are two common threads in the “institutionalized” approach to COVID-19. One is a tendency to myopically consider the risk of spreading the coronavirus without considering the impact of drastic mitigation measures. This can most dramatically be seen in the case of school closings. To protect against a risk of transmission that is negligible at most, local officials have wreaked havoc on the lives of working parents as well as the social, emotional, and educational development of their children.
The other tendency of the “institutionalized” is to exhibit a disproportionate emphasis on low-probability events and unknowns. People always take on some degree of risk in their lives. They could die in a car accident, but they still drive. They could drown, but they still swim. In 2019, 93,700 preventable injury deaths occurred in Americans’ own homes. Yet when it comes to the coronavirus, too many people are chasing the chimera of zero risk.
It is true that when it first arrived, COVID-19 presented an unacceptable risk, especially to many vulnerable populations. But with the exceedingly high vaccination rates among the most vulnerable, the situation is dramatically different today. Drastic measures that may have once been justified no longer make any sense, because the risk calculus has changed. In 2020, people who were unvaccinated had to consider forgoing travel to avoid the possibility of getting infected and inadvertently transmitting the virus to somebody vulnerable and unvaccinated. That’s a lot different from the current considerations relevant to traveling when vaccinated, when nearly all vulnerable people are vaccinated, and when anybody who wants a vaccine can get one.
It’s true that vaccines are not 100 percent effective. It’s true that there is always a risk that a variant could develop that can get around the vaccines. And it’s true that we don’t know whether there are long-term health effects of COVID-19 on children who had mild cases. Yet while the risk of COVID-19 may never be zero, in normal times, we take many actions that entail at least some risk. It was popular early in the pandemic for skeptics to argue that we never shut down the country for the flu, which kills about 20,000 to 60,000 people in a normal year. That may have been a silly argument a year ago given that without vaccines the coronavirus was much more fatal than the flu. But with the vaccines, the two are much more comparable. Though people may be studying long-term health effects of COVID-19 for decades, we cannot put our lives on hold while we wait for answers.
My cmnt: Covid-19 is only more fatal than the flu to the very elderly (80 & up) and those with co-morbidities, general bad health, lack of exercise, shelter-at-home fanatics, and those who have vitamin D and C deficiencies (easily & cheaply countered by going outside often, get plenty of sunshine, walk for half an hour, take D & C supplements, get yourself exposed to covid in low doses by never wearing a mask and socializing (i.e., herd immunity by building up antibodies).
My cmnt: Also, criminally, Fauci and the dems irrationally and evilly maligned the HCQ cocktail which when taken soon after the onset of covid symptoms was a cheap and accessible remedial that they denied to hundreds of thousands SO that this epidemic would not be easily stopped and could be used to overthrow President Trump and ruin the economy.
Instead, people should celebrate the miracle of these vaccines, embrace their liberation from COVID-19 prison, and get on with their lives.